Leaving Hailey for last week’s state tournament, the Wood River High School girls’ basketball team is in a positive frame of mind. Front, from left, Hannah Belloli, Lucy Paisley, Haillie Taylor, Kaitana Martinez, Kenya Schott, Sammi Sutton and Ciceley Peavey. Back, from left, Emmalie Dion, Lily Richards, Cookie Benson, Haylee Thompson, Cheyenne Swanson, Rory Cole and Haylee Pettit. Express photo by David N. Seelig
It's hard saying goodbye to the Wood River High School girls' basketball team. The girls accomplished so much and warmed up so many cold winter nights for their loyal fans.
Perhaps my fondest memory is of the girls lining up at the free throw line for the playing of the national anthem. I don't think I've ever seen another team, anywhere, do it quite the same way—arms around each other while gazing at the unfurled flag, rocking gently in respect, and looking every inch the All-American girls.
They were a joy to watch.
Remarkably, seven Wolverine seniors who played together on the undefeated Wood River Middle School eighth-grade team in 2007 ended up winning their final game of the season for only the second time when the Wolverines beat Moscow Saturday for the State 4A tournament third-place trophy.
If there is a formula for team success at the high school level, this particular group of girls had it and achieved it. They started together and stayed together on an unforgettable journey of learning how to win and how to play together.
The team had what its quiet leader Haylee Thompson called a leap list of things to do.
The players set a school record of wins, 21, last winter. They won 53 games, averaging over 17 a season, over three years. They brought home two state trophies, second place and third place. They won two straight conference tournament titles. They won 23 of 24 home games as sophomores and juniors. And they erased a long list of bogeymen from the annals of Wolverine basketball.
Last year, they beat Jerome for only the second time in 60 meetings. This year, they ended 25 seasons of lopsided losses at Jerome by winning there for the first time since 1979.
And they snapped a string of 14 losses since 2004 by winning at Minico for the first time.
Their challenges were many. As their coach Mendy Benson said prior to this season, the Wolverines without their injured point guard Kaitana (KT) Martinez would essentially have to be three teams in 2011-12—the team playing without KT, the team learning to play with KT when she returned in January, and the team with KT.
Martinez is one of four seniors forming the core of the high achieving Wolverines. Everybody knew she was going to be quite an athlete from her days of hurling the softball great distances and out-running everybody down the track in her days as a pre-teen. The ultimate team player, she exceeded all those expectations.
Can anyone forget Cheyenne Swanson's clutch blocked shot that beat Twin Falls for the district championship last year? Was there a doubt in your mind that Haillie Taylor would dive for a loose ball? And that the Taylor would shore up the defense in any way the coaching staff would ask?
The real discovery was Haylee Thompson. A gangly newcomer to the sport as an eighth grader, she progressed so much and so quickly in the difficult position of post player that by the time she ended her junior year, colleges sought her out and she eventually signed with NCAA Division 1 Utah State. Last weekend at state, she was arguably the best player there.
It wasn't always a smooth transition. During games as a sophomore, Thompson would get a whistle from coach Benson and receive a quick lesson in proper post footwork from the gesticulating Benson as Haylee ran down the floor. At one point when Haylee and her older sister Hunter were playing together and bickering, Benson called time out and told them to knock it off or they would both be benched.
Haylee learned quickly and cultivated a focus on teamwork and real competitiveness that took her team to a new level.
She didn't get it out of the air. Her mother Kim McKinnon is a cancer survivor, indomitable in many ways. After Saturday's third-place trophy win, she stood alongside daughter Hunter as Haylee was enjoying her accolades, and Kim pledged she plans to see many games at Utah State in the years ahead.